Monday, August 20, 2007

Countdown To Burning Man


Just a few days left before the caravan leaves for Black Rock City, the temporary city of twenty to thirty thousand people from around the world, converging in the middle of nowhere, 90 miles north of Reno. For a week, there is music, art, poetry, puppetry, nudity, frivolity, and mostly congenial mayhem in the midst of forbidding desert conditions, far away from the nearest conveniences. One must survive the desert oneself, yet you find yourself in a large community where people offer services for free - be it bicycle repair, a pint of beer, a fresh crepe, a shiatsu massage, a communal body-wash similar to a car wash, a trampoline for you to play on, an ode to your shapely ass, perhaps a joint.

Or so I have always understood. This will be my first Burning Man. Finally, a chance to grok this phenomenon for oneself. I am only able to go because, by pure luck, I got involved in building a delightful art installation with some friends, a project that won grant support from Burning Man's art foundation.

In Zen Master Seung Sahn's teaching, he would often draw a circle and talk about four points on the circle as an analogy to Zen. At the beginning, 0 degrees, there is attachment to name and form, and thus with every change that occurs throughout our lives, one moment after another, there is a sense of upheaval and suffering. At 90 degrees, there is consciousness of emptiness as well as form. At 180 degrees, emptiness takes over - this is the point of samadhi, where the mind stops, and there is no word, no action, no time, no space. Some people misunderstand this to be the point of "Zen," and it has a seductive charm for experienced meditators as well, but there is more to go.

270 degrees is also an enticing realm, for this is the realm of magic and miracles. This is the consciousness that allows some people to lay on beds of hot coals or walk on nails; it allows people to defy constraints you or I might accept as non-negotiable. It is the mind of free improvisation, where the creative nature of your original mind is unleashed. This is the place where you meet the Mysterious Collaborator who guides your hand on a ouija board or shows you words buried deep in the fibers of a blank sheet of paper, when music or text comes through your instrument unbidden until you get scared and stop the flow. It holds enormous power and freedom - which makes it so attractive and exciting, in contrast to the pressures society places on people.

Finally, you arrive at 360 degrees, where everything is just as it is. Gravity is gravity, trees are trees, water is water. Society is society, work is work. 360 degrees is also 0 degrees, so you arrive at the same ordinary life, only with a wider perspective. Thus goes Seung Sahn's circle teaching.


Burning Man is a celebration of 270 degrees. I think the Man of Dok Seung Mountain might have enjoyed it, in his early years in America.

There is potential for this "vacation" to be a delightfully weird Zen retreat, as far as maintaining a practice schedule in the midst of a 270-degree world. A formal Zen retreat plunges you into a simplified and regimented situation that challenges certain expectations and comforts, so that you experience a much deeper sense of direction and compassion. That kind of retreat, while still challenging for me, has become very familiar. This is a different kind of deprivation, in that most of the social conventions I accept without consciously considering will be, shall we say, waived. Yet the challenge will be the same: while your ego is disoriented, return to your original direction - a direction which has nothing to do with society and convention. It has nothing to do with being nice or peaceful or any other nice idea one makes out of Zen practice. What emerges if you plunge completely? Are you willing? That's the question.

So one collects drinking water (many, many gallons of it) and food and essentials for the trip; gets the tent and sleeping bag ready; decides what few items will grace the makeshift camping altar; selects clothing appropriate for the weather, and all the contingency items.

And the ukulele. Sure.

This blog will be quiet for a week starting this Friday. As tempting as it might be to stay in the desert after everyone else leaves, and stay there ever after, your correspondent will return September 3 or thereabouts.

1 comment:

Pam said...

Alg, I always knew you were a closet Hippie.

I used to know people who make the Burning Man trek.

Have fun and have a pint for moi!